Queen Bee. Bee in your bonnet. Busy as a bee. The bees’ knees. The birds and the bees. Like bees to a honey pot. I only recently realised how many idioms, metaphors and symbols about bees we’ve adopted into the English language. This realisation came when quite by accident in the space of a fortnight, I read two bee-themed books back-to-back: The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau and The Bees by Laline Paull.
These books do not both just feature bees; they’ve both been shortlisted for literary awards (Stella Prize and the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction) and have won awards too. I recommend both books, but for different reasons. The World Without Us is about a relatively common enough occurrence – family tragedy – but is really beautifully written. The writing in The Bees on the other hand, whilst not at all lyrical, gives you a perspective that you won’t find anywhere else – that of a bee.
The World Without Us is set in a small town north of Sydney and centres on the Muller family. Evangeline, the mother, is beset by grief from the death of her youngest child Pip from leukemia. Evangeline is ‘a woman so determinedly like a poem, like an elegy announcing its grief so overtly’. Evangeline’s other two daughters, Meg and Tess, are constantly wondering where their mother is, literally and metaphorically.
They’d lost their mother who’d once been fearless, who’d led them to the sea each summer and, gripping their hands in her own, pulled them through the glassy water. I’ve got you, she’d say to each girl as they kicked, their small heads glistered with brine.
They get accustomed to acknowledging the small signs of Evangeline’s existence where they can: ‘She’d become a person seen from a distance talking to trees, applying an ear to a flank of a horse, lying alone in a paddock with one leg lifted skyward’.
The narrative weaves between the family’s existence ‘Before Pip’ and ‘After Pip’. It’s heartbreaking to read the contrast between the warm depictions of when the family was whole, and afterwards when grief has consumed each of them.
Before Pip died the family had the Mood Chart with rainbow colours to map the spirits of your day. They’d had the Wonder Jar filled with paste gems by those who’d witnessed Miracles, Kindnesses, Unsought Praise. When the jar was full the sisters were promised a family excursion, a new game, book or toy…. Before Pip died they’d had their mother, mostly present.
The fragility of the family’s coping mechanisms are expertly depicted. Tess has completely stopped talking and Meg sketches trees, over and over: ‘when she runs out of words, she draws her way back to Pip’. Meanwhile Stefan, their dad, busies himself with his beehives, and drinks. As the stories of these characters, and others, unfold we learn that Stefan’s hives are in a state of decay and the bees have become weakened and ineffectual.
In The World Without Us, Juchau delivers a gentle unravelling of a family, a community and a mystery, set against a backdrop of the natural world’s deterioration. While the story she tells is not a new one, her gentle, nearly languid writing and the delicate depictions of the characters makes this book an intimate and almost cozy read.
Meanwhile, The Bees is a gallop through a day in the life of a bee, as told from a worker bee’s perspective. The protagonist is Flora 717: a bee of very lowly status in the hive. From the outset, we know that she is no ordinary worker bee and that she is destined for Great Things. The first Great Thing she does is fight and defeat a predatory wasp.
The last foragers rushed to get in as a foul alien scent mingled with it, sweet and corrupt like rotting fruit. It came from the lurid straggle of wasps hovering near the hive, drunk and jeering… A wave of acrid air rushed in and every sister’s feet felt the heavy alien vibration as a great wasp settled on the landing board… The wasp was a huge black female with bands of acid yellow and glossy black. Her head was as large as three sisters’ and she used her slashing claws to catch the guards one by one, killing each one with a snap of her heavy jaws.
Flora contravenes the hive’s highest law of ‘only the queen may breed’ three times, she defies her caste and becomes a forager, she tames a Drone (‘the drones roared and cheered and some grabbed their crotches, shouting crude praise for the erotic perfection of this foreign princess’) and outwits at least one rodent predator. Throughout all these episodes there are cute observations of other fauna: ‘717! You are behaving like a demented blue bottle – stop that!’.
In some ways, The Bees is slightly silly, but it’s also engaging and instructive. I never knew bees did a ‘waggle dance’, that the hive had such strong stratification of occupations or just how pivotal the queen bee actually is. Thanks to this anthropomorphic romp, I have a new empathy for the lives of honey bees and a deeper understanding of why many people are justifiably worried about their continued existence.
For me, The Bees was a bit of a jolly, and educative. I also learned a lot from The World Without Us but in a much more gentle and poignant way. It made me reflect on the wonders of having a small, intact family, and how that should never be taken for granted- a little bit like our bees.